Ann Beattie's Latest, 'A Wonderful Stroke of Luck' Leaves This Reader Feeling Hapless

Disaffected prep school youth, seemingly from another era, stumble through the immediate wake of a post-9/11 America in Ann Beattie's A Wonderful Stroke of Luck.

A Wonderful Stroke of Luck
Ann Beattie


Apr 2019


Consider the plight of an author whose continuing style and time may have long since faded. They still produce work, but it varies in quality. They work within a safe environment where the plaudits received for their early work are not tarnished or diminished by the changing times or different formats in which they choose to work. Within this hermetically sealed bubble in which they write their narratives about the alienated and disaffected, the author whose time has passed pushes even more forcefully to elevate their trademark styles. They keep writing alienated, cold, detached narratives that worked so forcefully to reflect the stranded souls of a post-Vietnam generation 45 years ago, only to see their powerful ability to capture that voice has become tedious today.

Ann Beattie's 21st book, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, might be too smart for its own good. Her lead character, Ben, is a student at a fictional New England Bailey Academy. The time setting is the early 21st century, that period of numbness in the atmosphere after the 9/11 attacks. The East Coast boarding school is a time-honored (and usually time-worn) cocoon where self-satisfied smug brilliance is fostered in a world like a hermetically-sealed biodome. Much like Susan Choi's similarly mixed novel, Trust Exercise (Henry Holt and Co., 2019), Beattie imposes the presence of a charismatic teacher on Ben and the other people in this narrative. However, unlike Choi's story, which attempted a lot but didn't follow through, Beattie's purpose seems to be more general. Ben has lost his father and he is trying to find both focus and purpose in a life that does not make much sense to him. A stepmother proves resistant, a neighbor is there but not there, and another woman's presence seems to be more destructive than helpful.

We see early on that the charismatic teacher, Peter LaVerdere, is only going to be a problem, but he's matched by his students. Laverdere's favorite text is Crime and Punishment, and star pupil Aqua cites Michael Herr's Dispatches as her go-to text. Beattie seems to be having fun in these early stages, citing Aqua as "…human Velcro, her words the tiny loops she hoped would attach her to whomever she cornered." Another character, LouLou, had "…written three novels -- she maintained that anything over a hundred pages was a novel." This particular passage seems telling regarding both the collection of characters here and Beattie's apparent inability to sustain realistic interest through the course of A Wonderful Stroke of Luck. She knows we can meander through some of her short stories and trust that she'll bring us to a crescendo, but novels are a wholly different landscape, and she doesn't earn our trust as early on in the story as she should.

Pierre Laverdere is a teacher of film, a teacher of drama, somebody who leads the honor society at Bailey Academy by bestowing upon his students offerings they should know:

Five Easy Pieces, Sophie's Choice, Waiting for Godot. Beattie knowingly sprinkles these references into the curriculum of her fictional New Hampshire boarding school and notes that:

"Being sick of Laverdere was like being sick of the hands of a clock. Of course they studied him to see what his mood was, while trying to appear disinterested…they were simply too young to be disinterested; they couldn't possibly think of personal advantage when they'd really accomplished nothing."

We learn that Laverdere's "Holy Trinity" is Dostoyevsky, Richard Feynman, and Robert Altman, another hint at where we might be going. 9/11 happens, but Laverdere is nowhere to be found. Beattie writes: "Now everything in the world was going to be rethought…" The students graduate the following year, and Barbara Ehrenreich is their commencement speaker. Years pass and Ben finds himself in New York City with his sister. "Whatever old people said was news brought from a vanished land," Beattie writes. She lands us in the middle of the ennui that so smothered our world in the first half-decade after 9/11. While it's forcefully and effectively evoked, the reader gets the sense Beattie would have been more effective had she written a memoir, or a series of essays. Consider this passage, which comes off more like the opening of a long-form essay about writing than novel writing itself:

"Metaphor. It was insidious. You had to ignore that way of thinking… your dreams contained straw men rather than real omens… your neurotic fears lacked legitimacy… you realized symbolic stories were inert… you had no special abilities… no second senses…"

The difficult part of a story like this is that even a great short story writer like Ann Beattie cannot effectively balance maintaining and sustaining our interest in what's happening with a character who isn't going anywhere. Beattie writes: "Time passed. He had his shoes resoled… Images of people jumping from the Twin Towers sometimes flashed through his mind." In the wake of that disaster, people of Ben's generation flock to Portland, Maine and New York's Hudson Valley. What was once seen as uncool becomes gentrified. It's difficult to embrace a character like Ben when "[T]he effort he was putting into talking exhausted him." Long conversations and references to Tom McGuane, Proust, and WNYC public radio talk shows remind us that these people were insulated before 9/11 and only held tighter to this desperate intellectualism in the years that followed.

There are moments in A Wonderful Stroke of Luck that resonate, though the reader needs to wade through many pages of ponderous navel-gazing and blank-eyed disaffected emptiness to get to them. Of LouLou, Beattie writes:

"She resembled the young Susan Sontag, as photographed by Thomas Victor. Sontag had been one of the first people to write an eminently sensible thing after 9/11, asking people to think seriously whether or not there might be reasons for our enemies to hate us."

It's the lost potential in passages such as this where the patient reader might feel frustrated. There's a reason Beattie set this story in the 9/11 era, but she fails the reader (and her narrative) by not following through on such observations. 9/11 did create numbness, and it ushered in a cold era of detachment in the arts, where irony was lost, and political commentary swept away in favor of commentary. Beattie assuredly and intelligently drops an endless supply of cultural references throughout this novel, but she doesn't back them up with anything within the story itself.

The reader familiar with novels about privileged teens at exclusive private prep schools -- like the aforementioned Trust Exercise, or teacher films like Robert Mulligan's Up the Down Staircase (1967) and Peter Weir's Dead Poets Society (1989) -- will see very early where Beattie will be taking LaVerdere's character. By its conventional nature, the ending disappoints. Who was LaVerdere? What was his function in this story? Beattie tells us that LaVerdere had a sort of "Machiavellian maneuvering" in the lives of these young people, "[B]ut he wasn't the devil, just a sad approximation." Beattie introduces her two major themes -- life for a generation of young people in the numb cultural wasteland wake of 9/11 United States and the disastrous emotional effects of a charismatic teacher on the lives of said young people -- but she doesn't bother to effectively (or convincingly) build upon either of them.

In the end, the reader works through nearly 300 pages of a character study painfully bereft of dramatic tension. The cultural references are effective and knowing, but these seem to be young people from the '70s imposed onto the early 21 st century. Fore example, the only cultural reference Beattie makes to the music of the time is the Madison Square Garden Michael Jackson concert of September 2001. Otherwise, these young people are untouched by pop culture. Where are their cell phones? Why are they not Instant Messaging each other?

The blank stares of disaffected sadness worked well in such films as Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces (1970), or anything from Antonioni and Bergman, but they're almost impossible to effectively pull off without distracting readers who deserve more. Not only do we not know anything more about Ben at the end of A Wonderful Stroke of Luck than we knew at the beginning, we don't really care. This is an intellectually rich book, but Beattie's clinical distance seems as much a reflection of her inability to fully capture this generation as it is a literary style. It reads like the result of scholarly research rather than primary experience. Emotional connections within or between characters are nowhere to be seen. Alas, if the writer seems uninterested in attempting a connection with the reader, then the effort expended to build an absorbing fictional world proves fruitless.






Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.


IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.


Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.


NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.


The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.


PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.


David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.